University of Tasmania

File(s) under permanent embargo

Language learning and integration of adult Bhutanese refugees : an ethnographic study

posted on 2023-05-27, 22:09 authored by Koirala, S
This study sought a holistic and in-depth investigation of English language learning and integration experiences of a group of adult Bhutanese refugees in Australia. The Bhutanese refugees have settled since 2007 as new residents of their host country after two decades of expatriate life in the refugee camps of Nepal. The impetus for this exploratory study stemmed from my personal experience as a cultural orientation trainer to such refugees and awareness of their expectations, attitudes, and dispositions related to learning and life trajectory. This study is interdisciplinary in its approach that takes account of the complex interplay of language learning and integration. Using an ethnographic methodology as an approach to investigation, this study sought to examine three social spaces of refugees: the family and ethnic community, the host society and the migrant English classroom. The attention was focussed on the resources and constraints the refugees encountered in each of the social spaces. Moreover, various social, contextual, cultural factors, and pre-migration influences embedded in these spaces were explored for their impact on learning and integration. This study was important mainly for three reasons. Through critical examination of the role of refugees' family and ethnic community networks, it aimed to provide insights into to what extent the resources embedded in these networks can be significant to refugees and also contribute to the existing literature of social capital (Putnam, 2000). Drawing on the investigation of how cultural issues, pre-migration experiences and perceptions of teaching impact on classroom language learning, this study sought to offer insights into how the English language should be taught to the adult students from refugee backgrounds. Moreover, this study sought to extend the scope of the existing refugee integration literature by investigating the integration as a process of ongoing negotiation between ethnocultural retention and host society participation, and how various social, cultural, contextual factors, and pre-migration experiences influenced the way integration is structured in everyday practice. This study employed an ethnographic approach as a methodological framework, involving observations, interviews, and a reflective journal study as the main tools for data collection. The field work was carried out in a regional area of the State of Tasmania. The observations were conducted in the migrant English classrooms, in a multi-ethnic Australian church and in the refugee community; and then the retrospective interviews were carried out with the Bhutanese refugees, their teachers and other service providers. The data were analyzed using ethnographic macro and micro level analysis techniques (Duff, 2002). The findings generated from observation data were supported and triangulated, where possible, by the use of data derived from interviews. This study was informed mainly by the interpretive paradigm. Given how extensive and messy the literature on migrant language learning and integration is, this study utilized a wide range of relevant theories to analyze and interpret the findings derived from the ethnographic fieldwork. One important contribution of this study is the finding that the social capital derived from refugees' family and ethnic community networks not only enables, but it also inhibits integration. This bonding social capital can function as a coping resource for refugees against the effects of culture shock, language shock, and racism, and can facilitate access to a range of instrumental support and information necessary for successful transition to the host society. However, this study also suggests that an extreme level of embeddedness within the cultural and social frames of ethnic space has the potential to jeopardize individual mobility, host society language learning and sustainable integration. This study shows that the cultural dispositions the adult refugee students bring to the classroom provide the primary basis for the way they approach their English learning, and thus influence their agency and identity as learners. The findings also suggest that the students are likely to engage in the desired learning tasks if their perceptions of teaching quality cohere with the actual teaching they are exposed to. Teachers are therefore suggested to adopt a hybridity of teaching approaches and methods in ways that bridge the gap between their own and their students' perceptions and expectations. The implications drawn from the empirical results additionally suggest that if the aim of the migrant English program is to facilitate the integration of refugees into their multicultural society, then the pedagogy it embodied should incorporate a hybridity of simulation scenarios (native, non-native and coethnic), enabling them to critically examine the impact of different types of identity they portray and negotiate their identities according to social constraints. This study suggests that in order to understand refugee integration more fully, it is not sufficient to account only for the pre-determined set of objective measures (such as employment and educational outcomes) without considering the way in which integration is actualized in everyday experience. For refugees in this study, what it means to be integrated into the Australian society was complex, ambivalent and context dependent. It was an ongoing process of contestation and negotiation between different values, identities and practices embedded in ethnic and mainstream Australia community. Based on my empirical study, I suggest that the everyday practices of refugee integration resembles with Bhabha's (1990) notion of Third Space‚ÄövÑvp and incorporates the hybridity of cultural identifications and experiences.


Publication status

  • Unpublished

Rights statement

Copyright 2017 the author

Repository Status

  • Restricted

Usage metrics

    Thesis collection


    No categories selected


    Ref. manager